Another Ten Seconds
Chapter 11: Howard's Work Left Unattended

by Jeff Rand

Standing in the snow without shoes or clothing, John knew he had two choices. He could go back inside the NVR building or try to survive outside. The prospect of the euphoric virtual reality inside was indeed inviting. Yet the flashing red light and the sudden movement of machinery that encouraged John's hasty departure led him to believe that whoever or whatever controlled it might find him a threat. Beyond his own safety, he realized that much more was at stake.

John judged that the temperature might be a few degrees below freezing, as he experienced the pain of standing in the snow with bare feet. It was perhaps 20 degrees warmer than the virtual winter paradise that he had just left, but global warming impacted this real world. In fact, the two or three inches of snow on the ground had become an uncommon occurrence in late December. "Or was it December," he thought.

He recalled a Winter Camp in the early 2000's where he joined a group of participants for an outdoor overnight. This was a period when Winter Camp adopted more of an attitude towards encouraging camping traditions. This represented something of a philosophical change, but was deemed more appropriate for the Order of the Arrow and allowed Winter Camp to gain greater respectability within the Detroit Area Council. During the overnight, Steve Donohue recalled the famous Lincoln Pilgrimage where he went shirtless for half an hour in below zero weather. This only encouraged a challenge. The barefoot hike that ensued lasted less than five minutes before the last competitor had succumbed to the cold.

Perhaps John might last a bit longer given the circumstances, but he knew the cold ground would suck the heat from the soles of his feet. A quick departure seemed appropriate. His first few steps were both awkward and painful, as he was yet to gain full mobility. Unfortunately as he moved from the building, he noticed a cold breeze which was less agreeable to his exposed flesh.

The NVR building was located at a former campsite that John had used 50 years ago when he was a Boy Scout in Troop 1375. The campsite was a large open field that sat on a bend in the Huron River on the southeast corner of property owned by Michigan Memorial Cemetery. "A fitting location" he thought while he surveyed his options. The nearest house might be nearly a mile away, if it still existed. The best choice seemed to indicate that he proceed to the developed part of the cemetery.

Only 100 yards away, the massive structure holding the NVR center dominated the background. The stark building was made of reinforced concrete and had no aesthetic value. The architectural concept was simply to provide the most utilitarian structure possible for the least cost. John judged it to about a 1,000 feet long and five stories high. He recalled that it was designed to hold 25,000 customers. There were perhaps a quarter of a million such structures worldwide.

Excruciating pain tormented his feet as he sought to increase his pace. He felt stronger, but his feet cold not take the cold, so he sat down. His rather plump posterior offered better insulation from the cold ground. For once the sedentary lifestyle of the 21st century had a physical benefit. After a couple of minutes he struggled back to his feet.

He repeated the process alternating a hike of 100 steps with a two-minute rest. When he sat down he lifted his legs to allow his feet a reprieve from direct contact with the ground. Physically he grew stronger with each step, but he could not exercise at anything approaching a pace to build up body heat. He would die of hypothermia unless he found clothing and shelter. One of these sittings would be his last. The skin on his cheeks would freeze to the wretched ground after his heart stopped pumping.

It took incredible fortitude for John to hike about a quarter of a mile before he encountered the first tombstone. This provided the inspiration for him to proceed a few more steps. He rested, then went a few more. He resolved to continue.

He had gone perhaps another 100 yards, when he came upon an open grave. Obviously the hole had been dug some ago and erosion had rounded the once square corners. Next to the hole he spied the wreckage of some rusted and weathered chairs. In the midst of chairs, standing on a small pedestal, he observed a casket. This he knew this could offer a solution to his survival.

John proceeded to the casket and tried to open the lid. It would not budge. Either he was too weak or it was sealed shut, perhaps both. He grabbed a chair and flailed at it violently. Unfortunately the fiberglass held firm against the impact of the chair. "Damn its too hard and my feet are freezing," he thought, as he sat on top of the casket for a rest. It was no warmer than the ground.

"Oh, I should never have left the building. I should crawl into the hole and die. I could be enjoying Winter Camp with my friends and family, even if it is not real," he said to himself. His first vocalizations in three years helped him focus his thoughts. "My family! My friends! They don't even know the truth! They will surely die and rot in their beds!" he said in a louder test of his vocal cords. "It must not be!"

These very thoughts increased his motivation and strength, as he grabbed a chair with utter rage. He walked to the side of the casket and noticed a gap between it and part of the pedestal. He forced the chair into the gap and pried the casket. It was the will of survival that gave him the strength he needed to lift casket from the pedestal using the chair as a lever. The casket flipped sideways and fell to the ground. It took another thrust of superhuman strength to right the casket. The seal had broken and the lid cracked open.

The casket was occupied as John had hoped. The occupant looked remarkably fresh, although John had no idea how a corpse should look after several years' rest. The body was that of an elderly female, perhaps as old as Roger Horn. He opened the bottom half of the casket to discover that she was wearing a rather sturdy dress and pantyhose. More importantly he looked at her shoes. They were awful small. Shamelessly he removed the shoes. "This could be worse", he thought. Although his fingers were not quite nimble, he loosened the laces on the left shoe. Next he attempted to place his foot inside. The shoe appeared to be about eight sizes too small. No way would it be sufficient.

Undaunted, John's survival instincts were now in overdrive. He grabbed the pillow from underneath the head and placed it on the ground. It brought him a bit of pleasure to stand upon the pillow to insulate his feet from the ground. Had John lived his entire life in the real world he might have more trepidation about stripping a dead woman, but the virtual world had provided him ample opportunity to deal with such things. He proceeded to unbutton the dress, an act of which he had much practical experience, at least on the living. He had expected to find an undergarment, instead he saw dead flesh on the sagging breasts. The flesh had a waxy appearance and repulsed him for the moment.

John grabbed the corpse with his left hand under the buttocks and right hand behind the back. He managed to roll it over in order to remove the knee-length dress. Fortunately there was no one around to note John's transcendence into the role of a transvestite. The dress was a bit snug in the shoulders, but it would suffice. It was likely the most important garment he had ever worn. He barely glanced at the corpse as he removed the pantyhose. He stretched them to their fullest and pulled them up his legs to his waist to create another moment of pleasurable warmth.

The lack of suitable footwear still haunted him. He had to do something if he were to move from this spot. He eyed the lining in the casket, thinking it might offer some solution. He ripped a piece of the lining, tearing into the shape of a triangular neckerchief. Next he placed his feet back on the cold ground. Quickly, he fashioned a sling for the pillow with the neckerchief. Then he placed his right foot onto the pillow. Next he pulled the ends of the neckerchief around his ankle in a technique he had mastered 50 years earlier in the Boy Scouts, while camping at this very location. "This just might work, if I don't get it wet," he thought.

John was quite proud of his new shoe when he took first step. He could now proceed with a warm right foot. It gave him inspiration, as he further explored the casket and corpse. He noticed the hair on the head was separated. He grabbed it to the find that it was wig. Adding more strips of the cloth as additional insulation, he had the makings of a second shoe. He placed his left foot in the wig and added the strips of cloth. He finished with a second triangular neckerchief. This too would work.

John ripped the casket lining to make four more neckerchiefs. These he used as his hat, scarf, and gloves.

There stood John Howey wearing his new wool-blend dress with pantyhose and homemade accessories ready to face the world or what remained of it.

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